A Brave New World of Political Skulduggery?

The ad featuring Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) was created by a worker at a firm connected to one of her rivals. The worker, who said he made the ad on his own time, was fired.
The ad featuring Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) was created by a worker at a firm connected to one of her rivals. The worker, who said he made the ad on his own time, was fired. (Youtube.com)
By Howard Kurtz and Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 23, 2007

The instant popularity of an attack video that mocked Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) prompted plenty of talk this week about how an ordinary citizen can influence political discourse by tapping into the power of the YouTube culture.

But the unmasking of the filmmaker as an employee of a company on the payroll of Clinton's Democratic presidential rival, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), raises questions about whether the more old-fashioned art of political chicanery was at play.

Phil de Vellis, who worked for the firm that designed Obama's Web site, Blue State Digital, says no one at the company or in Obama's camp knew he had made the video depicting Clinton as the droning voice of a totalitarian establishment. Obama and his aides say they had no idea who was behind the 74-second ad, which has been viewed online more than 2 million times, and which closes by flashing Obama's Web address.

Blue State yesterday provided a Feb. 10 e-mail in which de Vellis boasted of his role in the Obama effort: "Check out Barack's new website. . . . One shameless look at me plug, I designed the MyBarackObama toolbox that is on the front page and all the sidebar pages."

Thomas Gensemer, managing director of Blue State, a District-based online strategy firm, said he fired de Vellis Wednesday night. "This is an unfortunate situation all around," he said. Gensemer said his firm has provided only technical assistance, not creative services, to the senator's campaign. Joe Rospars, Obama's new media director, is on leave from Blue State.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton declined to criticize the video. He said Blue State "handled it internally and we're satisfied with their response," adding: "We can't be held responsible for everything a supporter says and does. . . . We don't hold our opponents responsible for any of a number of negative YouTube ads up there about Senator Obama."

Howard Wolfson, Clinton's communications director, said he finds it "disappointing that we all believed this ad was made by an average citizen expressing himself or herself, and that turned out not to be the case." Asked if the Obama camp should disavow the video, Wolfson said: "That's their decision."

De Vellis, 33, stirred controversy last year when he was in charge of Internet strategy for the successful Senate campaign of Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown. After anonymously posted criticism of Brown's Democratic primary opponent began appearing on local Web sites, an Ohio blogger reported that the writer's Internet address matched that of de Vellis. The Brown campaign acknowledged its involvement, but de Vellis denied posting the comments.

De Vellis has served as deputy director of online communications for Wal-Mart Watch, an anti-Wal-Mart group originally funded by the Service Employees International Union.

The uncovering of de Vellis, who used the screen name "ParkRidge47," a reference to Clinton's 1947 birth in Park Ridge, Ill., was a digital-age detective story. Liberal blogger Arianna Huffington said she had 30 staffers contributing to a message board of tips and technical sleuthing that eventually led to a source who confirmed de Vellis's involvement. She then called de Vellis and persuaded him to confess on the Huffington Post.

"The specific point of the ad was that Obama represents a new kind of politics, and that Senator Clinton's 'conversation' is disingenuous," de Vellis wrote. "And the underlying point was that the old political machine no longer holds all the power." De Vellis did not respond to an e-mail request for comment yesterday.

Comments keep pouring in to YouTube, some linking Obama to the video ("This was the worse thing Obama could have done," one user wrote yesterday), others praising its ingenuity ("I love that ad! Hillary Clinton is as much a part of the machine as Bush . . . Reagan."). The spot has also spawned imitators, such as a five-minute mash-up video titled "Vote Smart: a warning to all women about Hillary Clinton," which has been viewed more than 230,000 times.

"If I were a traditional media strategist, an old-school guy, I'd think, 'See, you can't trust these crazy kids,' " said Jonah Seiger, who heads the online strategy firm Connections Media. "If one of my employees did this, I'd be outraged. It would reflect badly on my company. It can't help but reflect badly on my client. . . . There's no question that this causes embarrassment to Obama."

The imbroglio highlighted not just how the power to push a message has shifted from big campaign organizations to lone operators with rudimentary video skills, but how technology makes subterfuge easier to accomplish -- and easier to detect.

"You can be as anonymous as you want on the Internet," Huffington said. "But the minute you create something powerful that has impact, people are going to find out who it is."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company